Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The Art Of Wit

The Fran Lebowitz Reader
Fran Lebowitz
Vintage Books

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

The Blind Art Collector And Other Stories

Toni Morrison: "You seem to me almost always right."
Fran Lebowitz: "What do you mean 'seem'?"
Toni Morrison: "But also never fair."
Fran Lebowitz: "I am always right because I am never fair."

I eventually found The Fran Lebowitz Reader in the "Humor" section of a book conglomerate in Toronto. I initially (and reasonably) looked for it in the section that contained A Critic In Pall Mall, but to no avail. I use 'conglomerate' accurately, if not approvingly. I know who the CEO is of this conglomerate, and only CEOs of conglomerates get invited to the annual Bilderberg conference on a regular basis. I won't comment on how conglomerates are good for the contemporary reader - that solitary figure - except to say that the question "Who is John Galt?" is still worth asking.
     This book provides an artistic answer to this Promethean question, in marked contrast to what one would expect from a book classified as "Humor/Literature" (Dagny Taggart is not one to crack a joke, let alone get one). So, the person responsible for stocking the shelves at this conglomerate can be excused for thinking that Lebowitz is just another Jewish comic with a book to sell full of rehashed jokes from her long standing stand-up routine in the Catskills.
     The medium is the message, and the massage. Indeed, we have all enjoyed the societal effects of McLuhan's masterful inventory. But in this case Fran's message should not be bluntly conflated with the medium she so naturally embodies, especially by publishers who ought to know better. Shelvers and consumers alike who focus attention on "Humor" to the exclusion of "Literature" are the victims of a misplaced mistake (in this case by Vintage Books). A misplaced book, let alone a misclassified one, makes all the difference in the world. "Humorous Literature" worthy of the name should be classified as "Wit" (my kingdom for such a section).
     Humor differs from wit. Humor is "niceness" or "warmth" (as Lebowitz once put it to Toni Morrison). Wit, on the other hand, is as cold as an Oscar Wilde review. Wit assumes. Wit presumes. Wit judges. Wit is elitist. Wit makes a difference. Fran has wit. Therefore, Fran makes a difference (QED). To put it less logically: Fran Lebowitz is the Bill Hicks of contemporary literature, sans the crass.
     What is her message and what difference does she make? In the preface to The Fran Lebowitz Reader she writes: "If what is presently called art can be called art, and what is presently called history can be called history (indeed, if what is presently called the present can be called the present), then I urge the contemporary reader - that solitary figure - to accept these writings in the spirit in which they were originally intended and are once again offered: as art history. But art history with a difference: modern, pertinent, current, up-to-the-minute art history. Art history in the making."
     For the fashionably lazy among us who are firm believers in the adage "nothing succeeds like address," and whose only understanding of the outdoors "is what you must pass through in order to get from your apartment into a taxicab," allow me to sum up Fran's message in seven words, a comma, and a period: democracy for society, but not for culture. And for those who are energetic enough to have read this far, let me put it this way: the cumulative function of Fran's history, insofar as the art world is concerned, is to implicitly argue for the necessity and sufficiency of a natural aristocracy of artistic talent.
     There is such a thing as "getting carried away with democracy." Consider the following example. At the beginning of Public Speaking Fran states: "There is no more suitable and potent image for our time than the image of the blind art collector. I think that sums it up. If you were to write a history of the era you should call it The Blind Art Collector And Other Stories." In what does the blindness consist? It consists in not recognizing and promoting the artistic aristocracy. The cultural equivalent of river blindness is what you get when democracy enters into the artistic water supply.
     Fran uses 'aristocracy' accurately, if not approvingly. In art it all comes down to the luck of the draw: you are either a draftsman or you are not. That is luck. Some people are born with talent. Others are not. Not everyone can play the artistic game, especially not in New York (Fran's home town), because in New York "it's not whether you win or lose - it's how you lay the blame." Laying Fran's brand of blame might not be fair, but that does not mean that it is not right (or left, depending upon the target of Fran's wit). In turn, not everyone can and should write a book (among other artistic ventures): "When Toni Morrison said that you should write the book that you want to read, she did not mean everyone." The Fran Lebowitz Reader is indication enough that Morrison included artists of Fran's ilk.
     Interestingly enough, democracy provides the political infrastructure for the art world to both determine and promote its own aristocracy. Societal democracy makes the artistic aristocracy possible, while the artistic aristocracy brings taste to the masses: a win/win proposition. Fran is right to point out that artists were not the only casualties of AIDS. A large discernible audience was also lost. This was an audience who knew precisely why Suzanne Farrell was on stage and not some pirouetting equivalent of a prima donna wanna-be. Such a high level of artistic connoisseurship within the culture can only raise the barre of our democracy by determining, empowering, and promoting the aristocratic class. This is why someone like Betsey Johnson is so fashionably late (seventy years and happily counting), and why she matters so very much.

Fran and Betsey


     Fran is unfair. But that does not mean that she is wrong. She is right about the targets of her wit precisely because she is unfair (by definition). You cannot impose a democratic criterion of fairness upon an area of culture that is antithetical to democracy. If by democracy you mean "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," then to impose that on the art would be a category mistake. As Fran puts it: "'From each according to his ability, to each according according to his needs' is not a decision I care to leave to politicians, for I do not believe that an ability to remark humorously on the passing scene would carry much weight with one's comrades ... The common good is not my cup of tea - it is the uncommon good in which I am interested, and I do not deceive myself that such statements are much admired by the members of the farming collectives."
     The irony here is blatant, and to the point. Democracy is not a universal panacea. It has its place because it has its limits. If Fran's book contributes toward establishing those limits by separating the democratic sheep from the aristocratic goats then it will have served its purpose. And if the sheep are found among the goats, then they will be put in their place. Commenting on the notion of "life imitating art" Fran focuses her wit through the following thought experiment. If life imitates art, then imagine yourself as a piece of conceptual art. Fran goes on: "We positioned ourselves randomly on a hardwood floor and pretended to be cinder blocks. We affixed to our shirtfronts labels bearing words unrelated to one another in a linear sense. We were not understood and we were greatly admired. We found this to be not unfulfilling." Whether this applies to "The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living" is all a matter of taste.
     Fran rightly mocks the unjustifiable pretentiousness of conceptual art, but there is a conceptual method to her madness. Fran mocks the worst of it in order to promote it at its best. Obviously part of that promotion consists in the art of seeming contradiction. But she is in good company. She contradicts herself in Whitmanesque fashion. Speaking of which, she even dresses like him. This only adds to her charm.
     Who is John Galt? Galt is the artistic Atlas who upholds the aristocratic claim: democracy for society, but not for culture. To impose democratic standards onto the art world is to court societal disaster: Atlas might shrug and in so doing make the content, if not the structure, of a democratic society boringly banal.
     I have one complaint. If Fran was not so lazy, she would write and publish more articles and more books. Quality is better than quantity, but I am fashionably lazy and I want both. Wake up Fran, get to work, and write my opinions for me.
     Fran once described how she started writing for Interview Magazine in 1970. The day she applied for this position she went to the Decker Building (located at 33 Union Square West in Manhattan), took the elevator up to the sixth floor, and walked toward a door with a sign taped to it that read "Knock Loudly And Announce Yourself." Fran knocked on the door. Someone from behind the door asked "Who is it?" Fran answered:  "Valerie Solanis." Andy opened the door and let her in. He was no stranger to the art of wit.

Fran and Andy

Fran Lebowitz. The Fran Lebowitz Reader. Vintage Books, 1994.
Martin Scorsese. Public Speaking. HBO Documentary Films, 2010.
Oscar Wilde. A Critic In Pall Mall. Kessinger Publishing, 2007.
Walt Whitman. Song Of Myself. Dover Publications, 2001.